Monday, December 28th, 2020

Taylor Swift – Willow

‘Tis the damn season…


Rachel Bowles: The Swiftian renaissance continues unabated. If folklore took us back to the old Taylor we knew and loved (perfectly honed hooks, insightful storytelling — lucid, expansive yet concise) evermore promises that this is more than just a one-album cycle. Finally shedding the self-conscious anxiety that has plagued her since the Reputation era, Taylor has quietly and confidently returned to her wheelhouse stronger than ever, sprinkling the (almost) universal and the quotidian with just enough fairydust to craft sublime folky dream pop. Though percipience was always a cornerstone of her songwriting, (how else does a young teenager write a song like “Fifteen”?) Swift’s maturity and wisdom has grown on “Willow,” enough to know that she doesn’t know, a lesson quietly sung back to us from the hush of 2020 and a world stuck in a perpetual present.

Thomas Inskeep: Evermore is the stripped-down singer-songwriter album I’ve wanted from Swift for quite a while; folklore was part of the way there, but its companion (it’s not a sequel) goes all the way. Credit the National’s Aaron Dessner, a songwriter or producer on 14 of 15 of the album’s tracks, but credit even more the way that working with Dessner seems to have freed Swift up to write in some different, less-adorned ways. The musical accompaniment and arrangements, more naturalistic and less fussy on evermore, lend themselves to this set of songs. “Willow,” even with strings and a glockenspiel, feels simple in just the right way, keeping the focus as is should be, on Swift’s lyrics. “Every bait and switch was a work of art” is such a perfect little line, and “Willow,” like evermore, is full of them. It’s also worth noting that she spends much of this song singing in her lower register, which really, uh, registers with me. This album doesn’t sound like Joni Mitchell, but evermore is definitely Taylor Swift’s Joni Mitchell album (maybe her Hissing of Summer Lawns?), and “willow” is a sterling distillation of it.

Juana Giaimo: I don’t agree with the people who say that in folklore and evermore Taylor Swift went back to her roots, because these albums have something the old Taylor didn’t have: emotional distance. She has said that for these albums she wrote non-autobiographical songs, and I think this influenced not only the lyrics, but also the music. “Willow” is calm, there is space in between the lines and, most importantly, there is no rush to build a big dramatic moment: there is a verse after the bridge and when the final chorus finally arrives, she sings the last part on a deeper register — and it fits beautifully.

Asif Becher: The component parts work — her voice on the verses, the way the melody gets rearranged just slightly on the bridge, a stray lyric here and there. But it never comes together. There’s something fluffy and airy about this song, and it never quite touches land. She stays in her head voice the entire time and eschews the vocal tricks she usually uses to make a payoff line stick. That would normally be a problem, but it’s canceled out by the fact that the lyric is so unremarkable, free of any lines that are in any particular need of a big payoff. The few moments of lyrical acuity or classic Swift storytelling she does sneak in (“I’m begging for you to take my hand” or “Wait for the signal and I’ll meet you after dark”) are buried under the rolling sameyness of the production. The song would like us to think it’s stripped back and acoustic, but make no mistake, this jaunty, almost classical (can I just say: ew) guitar takes center stage here, dominating Taylor’s voice, melodies, and presence. The biggest problem that Aaron Dessner has presented Taylor with here is he’s erased the part of her songwriting process in which she is central — the moment of sitting at the piano, having a lightbulb blink up in her big, weird brain, and creating something from nothing that is uniquely hers. Everyone has a version of Taylor Swift they take personally, a version they believe is the Real Taylor. I don’t know at all which is the Real Taylor, but this one — who sings in a low-register, who’s muted and unobtrusive, without a sparkle in sight, who cedes to the production whims and musical directions of the kind of mopey man she used to make fun of — certainly isn’t mine. I would like a certain someone to be removed from this narrative, one I’ve never asked him to be a part of, since 2020.

Leah Isobel: Taylor’s command of songcraft remains impressive — the way her melody lilts around the swaying instrumental is hypnotic, and mirrors the images of ships and trains and wind. I like the line about ’90s trends, too, and how its silliness punctures the hushed atmosphere of reverent heterosexuality. I wish that wit was present in the rest of the song.

Scott Mildenhall: If anyone were canny enough to know that giving such exaggerated focus to a line as egregious as “I come back stronger than a 90s trend” was a surefire way of drawing both the derision of know-betters and, more importantly, the approval of YouTube commenters, it would be Taylor Swift. That said, “Willow” is not otherwise immune to such laboured wordplay and awkward allusions — the notion that trophies are mythical is nothing after an opening verse of muddling through a mislabelled maritime mind map. Its writerly ambitions are its weakness, but fortunately its strength overpowers them. When Swift keeps things simpler — more musical — the daintiness of its dance with danger comes into its own. The chorus, so precise and suggestive of imperilled innocence, is palpably wistful for a merely emerging awareness of a forever-or-flames situation. The succinctness is poetry; the elaboration is a puncture.

Jonathan Bradley: “I come back stronger than a ’90s trend,” is a hard and pristine Taylor Swift koan, sly and prepossessing in the way it transforms self-knowledge into strength. I love it, and it also has little to do with “Willow,” the first single from evermore and the song in which it appears as a lyric. The same might be said for the tune’s “wreck my plans/that’s my man” hook, which appears as an airy swoon whispered in the private spaces of a Reputation deep cut. What is most arresting about “Willow,” though, is the otherwordly thatch of its guitar, which grows as clumped twigs in an uncivilized expanse, suggesting a magic not of the wondrous golden invisible string portrayed in the video, but of an untamed and untrustable wilderness, the sort that exists in the dark places between the shadows and the bleached trees of a moonlit night. If you’ve ever been out in the bush after dark, shining a torch into the endless ghost spaces where the scrub ends, you might imagine how this song swallows the unknown into its edges. Swift aligns herself with the natural world and all its witchcraft — she is the ocean and her life is the bending willow — but this interloping man has a magic all of his own, too; he can summon pure and plain pop choruses. He intrudes, and I feel threatened, but he is also worthy of awe; I suppose it really is awesome to have one’s plans wrecked sometimes.

Edward Okulicz: Definitely here for woodsy Taylor Swift showing some Big Witch Energy, and this is measured and meticulous as any of her songs. It still feels odd as a single because of that well-documented feeling you might have when a fave puts out something you like that’s only pretty good when you know they’re still capable of really good. Casting a spell is probably quite a lot like baking cookies — and I think Taylor Swift’s cookies look like magic — but her love spell song is just a little too neat to be magic. But below-average Taylor is still well above-average pop, and good on her for disrupting people’s cosy year-end list bubble.

Alex Clifton: Gosh, this is pretty. So simple and lovely. I have loved the folklore/evermore, era as it’s a wonderful opportunity to hear Swift without stacked layers of production. Much as I love a lot of her pop hits and Max Martin collaborations, I’ve always wanted a stripped-back project from Taylor that allows her to play around a bit without having to worry about radio plays. Swift has likened “Willow” specifically to casting a love spell, and she’s not wrong. The lilting melody hasn’t left my brain in weeks, Taylor obsession aside; it’s really magnetic and pulls me in like the tide. After listening to this once, I felt like I arrived home somewhere, a warm sense of comfort enveloping me. While one of my favourite things about music is how it can take me away from where my physical body is, I think you’ve struck gold if you are able to make your music sound like a place you wouldn’t mind living in. I’m delighted that Swift has decided to stick around in the woods for a bit; it suits her well and has provided me with some of the most reassuring music I have heard in a long time.

Rachel Saywitz: I can forgive Swift’s breathy falsetto in the chorus of “Willow” because the melody has such a youthful bounce to it. But I’m still trying to figure out if “I come back stronger than a ’90s trend” is a good line or not.

Alfred Soto: As folklore‘s melodically desiccated companion, evermore contains too many on-the-nose lyrics in search of contexts. “Willow,” for example, has “I come back stronger than a ’90s trend” for no reason other than Taylor Swift jotted it down in a notebook or something but couldn’t figure out where to stick it. But Aaron Dessner weds the stand-by-your-man chorus to a sticky enough hook, thus permitting another minor triumph.

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: My problem with “Willow,” like my problem with much of evermore irrespective of Taylor’s dalliances with Aaron Dessner, is that the songwriting feels stilted and odd. The best Taylor Swift lyrics work because they feel plucked from the crevices of everyday of life: “I never saw you coming, and I’ll never be the same,” “Is it cool that I said all that?,” “I don’t wanna look at anything else now that I saw you.” Taylor Swift has had successes with different kinds of storytelling and perspective-taking as of late, but “Willow” suffocates itself with its central arboreal conceit, and out-of-place one-liners like, “Lost in your current like a priceless wine.”

Austin Nguyen: Whether you see this as pre-Illuminations cottagecore Rimbaud or pseudo-Rupi Kaur after a short-lived camping trip, I don’t think you can fully explain to me 1) how any work, musical or otherwise, should traverse from Odyssean waters to Law and BevMo!rder, 2) why a man is, all at once, The Ship, The Myth, and The Championship Ring, or 3) if there is any bigger tone disruptor than “but I come back stronger than a ’90s trend.” At least there’s no cognitive dissonance in the production — which, albeit predictable (the violin pouts for the middle eight, then disappears), is pretty — and there are no trucks?

John Seroff: I distinctly remember getting into an argument with a friend over dinner a short time after Red came out. My position was that Taylor had already proven herself as a serious artist and that her promised maturity as a songwriter and performer in the years ahead would likely lead to a lifetime catalog with the potential to stand alongside Dolly Parton. We’re almost a decade past that relatively early prognostication and songs like “Willow” leave me still ambivalent about my thinking, then and now. At it’s best, “Willow” is a sugar cookie with a clean aftertaste, powered by tripping pizzicato strings and packed with a murderer’s row of hipster new music personnel: Doveman on keys, Clarice Jensen on cello, So Percussion’s Jason Treuting on glockenspiel. Taylor’s voice cooperates well enough with that enviable ensemble, but the weak link for me is the song’s waxy lyrical veneer. At this stage in her career, Swift’s fragile princess mode particularly distracts as jaded and leaves “Willow” with the feel of marketed product, not poetry. She’s one of the most powerful women in the world; even forgiving pratfalls like the “’90s trend” song-stopper, hearing Taylor regressively pine for a generic white knight showcases the least interesting part of her artistic persona. It’s not all she does, but I dearly wish Taylor would consistently stop bending and either stand or snap.

Andrew Karpan: The whisper-thin production makes the chorus sound like an agitated secret that Swift is sharing with us, this old story of not-quite requited love that manages to sound both sad and clever, melodramatic and sarcastic. It’s only when she pauses to underline her own witticism (the too-quotable line likening her latest commercial turn of fortune to a “come back stronger than a ’90s trend”) that the smooth line falters and she’s Reputation-era Taylor again, a pool of contrived snark with diminishing returns. But other moments move more by saying less. The light, pained smirk from which Swift says the phrase “that’s my man.” The sad warmth in how Swift says “home.”

Reader average: [8.57] (7 votes)

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2 Responses to “Taylor Swift – Willow”

  1. high controversy score on ‘i come back stronger than a 90s trend’!

  2. « punctures the hushed atmosphere of reverent heterosexuality. » = BOTY

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